Mourning for Peter Starlinger

Peter Starlinger (18th March 1931 to 1st September 2017)

With great sadness we announce that our colleague Peter Starlinger passed away on the 1st September 2017. He was 86 years old.

September 14, 2017

Peter was a Group Leader and then Professor (Genetik und Strahlenbiologie) in the Genetics Department of the University of Cologne from its founding by Max Delbrück in 1962 until his retirement in 1995. In 1982, he was also appointed as an external member of the MPI for Plant Breeding Research.  From before his appointment as an external member, Peter had a profound influence on the institute. As a member of the Senate of the Max Planck Society, he contributed to reshaping the scientific remit of the institute that led to the appointment of Jeff Schell in 1978 and its subsequent development as a centre for plant molecular-genetics. Furthermore, two Directors of the institute, Heinz Saedler and George Coupland, were trained in his laboratory as a PhD student and post-doctoral fellow, respectively. Whilst two other current members, Wolf Frommer, a von Humboldt Professor, and Klaus Theres, a Research Group Leader, were also his PhD students.  

His research interests were closely associated with the study of transposable elements. In a classical paper, his group identified transposons in bacteria as polar mutations in operons caused by insertion of DNA (Saedler H, Starlinger P. 1967 Mol. Gen. Genet. 100:178–89). Later, he set out to explain McClintock’s Activator/Dissociation (Ac/Ds) system in maize at the molecular level. After developing methods to isolate plant genes that were known to be impaired by Ac/Ds, his group successfully described the structure of a complex Ds insertion in the sucrose synthase gene (Döring et al. 1984 Nature 307:127-130).

In addition to his science, Peter was heavily committed to teaching and to political causes. He wrote a memoir entitled Fifty Good Years (Starlinger (2005) Annual Review of Plant Biology), in which as well as summarising his scientific work he described the privilege his generation felt to be able to work in a free and open society such as post-war Germany. He believed that scientists should use these freedoms to comment publically on political developments, and during the 1980s he was an active participant in national debates on nuclear armament and the use of genetic modification in agriculture.

His commitment to science, intellectual rigor and obvious integrity had a profound effect on his peers, students and post docs; he will be long remembered.


George Coupland, Paul Schulze-Lefert and Miltos Tsiantis


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